In black and white film photography, a key factor in the process of visualization is the translation of a full color world of three dimensions into a two dimensional object made up of values from black to white. In the first 75 to 100 years of photography there was little choice for photographers to engage that fact, with few exceptions like the Autochrome process. There were artistic precedents of course in drawings in charcoal, graphite and inks, and there were the printmaking processes of etching and engraving, woodcut and lithography. The earliest examples of translating the real world into the reproduced world is found in the cave drawings that remain mysterious to us and predate agricultural human communities.
For the generations that spent many hours in front of black and white TVs and read newspapers that exclusively printed photos in black and white, there are plenty of visual precedents for imagining the world in black and white, including the reduction to 2-dimensional rectangles. These visual precedents can work in the mind as what I call “mental templates” and help a photographer to make the necessary translation to black and white film and paper. For this reason I have had my students look through multi-volumes of good photographs by photographers who successfully and powerfully made those translations into black and white images. Not only would they spend time with a book, but they would pick out a photograph that especially impacted them, and have to write a short paper describing the characteristics of the image that made it work.
The templates can be very helpful but they have the potential to be controlling or limiting. For a budding landscape photographer devotedly studying the works of Ansel Adams, for example, how strong a personality would be required to not produce Adams-like images? While it is as easy as pie to produce a pale imitation of an Adams image, how difficult it would be to out Adams Adams! Ansel himself went to work with some templates in order, the precedents of the 19th century American painters, like Bierstadt, with their heroic visions of the American landscape. But even here he was making the translation from full color to black and white.
If one compares the work of Ansel and his friend Minor White it becomes apparent that something more than the application of mental templates is involved in producing their bodies of work. Ansel was not, apparently, a religious man, conservative in many ways but not devout to a faith or creed. His spirituality seems rooted in the land that he photographed, the mountains, the brilliant skies and lofty cloud banks as big as the mountains. White, early on under the influence of a mystical spirituality and with a definite inward turn produced landscape work very unlike his friend Ansel. Yet when he makes the translations to black and white film and paper he utilizes the same tools of translation as Adams; contrast, gradation, acutance, texture and so on. Both photographers successfully brought their personalities, one could say, their inner selves to the work of translation. Pulling that off may be the hardest part!
We could outline several components of the process of translating the three dimensional world of full color into a black and white photograph. Acquiring mental templates that help to see what possibilities are at hand, e.g., what other photographers have done in similar situations is one important component. Knowing how to control the materials is essential to achieving success, and this is what Adams emphasizes in teaching the Zone system. The third component is visualization in its most personal and subjective form.
Some people have an easier time in understanding their own personal vision than most, which gives them the ability to use mental templates without becoming entrapped in them. For others, it is helpful to periodically take stock of their work to hopefully clarify what is important in their seeing. If I lay out a lot of my images before me, can I see some pattern or tendencies? What do I look at? What catches my eye? Do I take a particular slant on things? Am I able to express something of my own particular character in the photographs? What kinds of my photographs do I consider the most significant and successful? Why are they significant to me? What am I really trying to say in a photograph? How is this My photograph and not someone else’s?
These kinds of questions can lead to a much deeper kind of visualization than merely imagining how the colors will translate to grey values in film and print. While that is important, even essential, the deeper element in the act of visualization, which Adams often referred to as an “emotional response” to a scene, is what in the end will separate the competent technician from the artist.